EW Staff
August 28, 1992 AT 04:00 AM EDT

On Stage 11 of the Raleigh Studios lot in Hollywood, where Garry Shandling has created a parallel television universe—a fictional talk show starring himself called The Larry Sanders Show—it’s easy to get confused about what’s real and what isn’t.

There are dressing rooms in one building and sets built to look like dressing rooms in another. There are writers feeding lines to actors playing writers feeding lines to actors. There are makeup people making up actors playing makeup people, producers conversing with actors playing producers. And just across the parking lot from HBO’s real Larry Sanders Show production office—a cluttered maze of ringing telephones, scattered notepads, and half-finished cups of coffee—is a painstaking replica of a production office—a cluttered maze of ringing telephones, scattered notepads, and half-finished cups of coffee.

”We try not to think about it,” says one of the show’s real crew members, acknowledging that the set occasionally feels like one big house of mirrors. ”We’re afraid that our heads might explode.”

If not literally mind-blowing, Shandling’s latest television premise is mind-bending at least, and it has wowed the critics: ”an artistic success of stunning brilliance,” raved the Hollywood Reporter. ”I want people to think they’re watching an actual talk show,” says Shandling. ”But then I want to show them everything that goes on away from the camera, too.” Airing Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. and now in its third week of 13, the half-hour program combines talk-show segments in which Garry as Larry chats up celebrities as themselves, like Mimi Rogers and Herve Villechaize, with documentary-style film footage of Larry’s behind-the-curtain interactions with his staff, his ego-massaging producer (Rip Torn), his ever-so-humble announcer (Jeffrey Tambor), and his second wife (Megan Gallagher).

Most of this is scripted, but Larry Sanders’ repartee with his star guests often is not. When Carol Burnett mentions in the Aug. 29 episode that all those years of good-night ear tugs have made one lobe slightly longer than the other, Garry/Larry spontaneously breaks in-and breaks up the studio audience- with, ”So you actually have to get earmuffs at a specialty shop.”

”I’m trying to make all of this as realistic as possible,” says the man who alternated with Jay Leno as guest host of The Tonight Show in the late ’80s. Shandling, 42, has wearily collapsed into an office chair, his high-topped feet propped on a desk. ”There’s so much hypocrisy that goes on in talk shows. At home, you can watch and never guess whether the host likes the guest, doesn’t like the guest, wants to date them, or wants to kill them. But you can certainly tell backstage. And that’s the part that has always intrigued me.”

Indeed, The Larry Sanders Show‘s plots, most of them generated by Shandling, are about the dirty little talk-show secrets we’ve always suspected—how comics get blacklisted for appearing on someone else’s program, how the star gets insecure when a guest host (in this case Dana Carvey, playing himself) does a little too well. In addition, much about Shandling’s imaginary talk show seems specifically familiar—the braying, obsequious sidekick, the fern-laden set, the multiple marriages of the host. Carson, perhaps?

”It’s not about Johnny,” Shandling insists, although he admits that ”some of it is similar to what goes on at The Tonight Show. But it’s also from my experiences on every talk show I’ve done. I’m sure people will read things into some of these shows. Some of that will be accurate. Some of it won’t.”

Shandling has been getting offers to set up his own late-night desk and couch for years; Tribune Entertainment execs preferred him over Dennis Miller for its now-canceled talk entry. But five years ago, even as he was immersed in his last violation of TV reality, the fourth-wall-bashing It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he started toying with the notion of a make-believe talk show that would let the audience see what goes on off camera.

”I just think that, for me, doing a real talk show would have been unfulfilling,” he says, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his eyes, as if the very thought of it leaves him exhausted. ”There were nights when I guest-hosted for Johnny where I would walk off the stage and go, ‘Man, why would I ever want a job where I’m forced to talk to people that I would never want to talk to in real life?’ I mean, some nights it’s incredibly fun, when you get to talk to Sugar Ray Leonard or someone like that. But a lot of nights you’d just be faking it.”

Shandling kept this idea of playing a talk-show host to himself until last year, when HBO president Michael Fuchs asked if he’d be interested in developing a comedy series about, of all things, a fictional talk show. ”As a matter of fact,” Shandling told Fuchs, ”I know just how I’d do it.” And, with the real-life talk-show wars raging more intensely each day, the timing couldn’t be better. ”We’re taking advantage of the fact that there’s been so much coverage lately, especially since Johnny left,” Shandling says. ”Everybody in the country is so aware now of what’s going on.”

Even when he’s not on camera, Shandling (who wrote for such sitcoms as Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter before breaking into stand-up in 1975) remains on the set during tapings, watching the monitor, working closely with Jim Kantrowe, a Tonight Show associate director for 19 years, who supervises Shandling’s/ Sanders’ on-air scenes. As the star, producer, and principal writer, Shandling takes responsibility for every script change, camera angle, and editing decision. The pressure shows.

”It’s a very ambitious show and I do get incredibly drained and edgy,” he admits. ”That’s one of the big differences between Larry and me. He’s in a more isolated position and has a producer who shelters him from the daily goings-on of the show as much as he can. I’m not sheltered from anything.”

As he steps on stage later, his torn jeans traded in for a suit and tie, Shandling gets somewhat more animated. Preparing to perform five Sanders monologues in a row, he tells the audience, ”I know this is all a little disjointed.” But so attuned to talk-show ritual are they that with no instructions, they clap at all the appropriate times-even applauding the nonexistent band at the moments when music will later be added.

At the close of each monologue, Shandling—no, Sanders—deliberately (or perhaps not) evokes the memory of ancestor Carson’s golf swing with his own trademark gesture: Extending an imaginary remote control, he cheerfully admonishes his viewers, ”Don’t flip around.”

But then which viewers is he talking to? The ones watching Garry? Or the ones watching Larry? Or…

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